Wednesday, August 01, 2007

On love, imposters and orientalism

Love is not one of the things I usually discuss on my blog but today I will make an exception. Perhaps because my own love life has come crashing down in flames, but in particular because of an article Sami Moubayed has written on MidEastViews. Sami is a great writer and historian and I find his articles highly interesting, yet his recent posting "Imposter love" ruffled my feathers a tad.

There is much to criticise in the rigid and stale traditions which still exist within Syria and I recognised much of what he described with regards to the shopping mall mentality which happens when a young man is deemed 'ready to settle down':

When young men decide to marry they do it the traditional way, visiting homes of potential brides to choose from a wide array of women who are on public display—like merchandize waiting to be purchased. It all depends on the customer. Sometimes the richest sell out immediately. Sometimes the cheapest. Sometimes the most attractive on supermarket shelves. After going through a long pre-set checklist (good family, compatible social milieu, status of mother and father (sometimes even grandfathers), and certain characteristics like whether a woman is veiled or not), the customer/suitor makes his decision. It is based on suitability—or prestige—not love. Then the couple literarily train to start loving each other—or make it look as if ‘they are in love.’ They often put on grand public performances, which vary from childish giggling and public hugs to constant show-ups in society to prove to the world—and themselves—that they are now ‘united.’ They act like lovers to compensate for having ‘fallen-in-love’ in such a doctored and fake manner.

This ridiculous charade and facade maintained by these "in love" designer couples, as I like to call them, is what is passed off for tradition and love. Marriages of mutual convenience and arrangement to cement relations between what Moubayed refers to as the "upper new elite" of Damascus. A shallow and superficial social stratum. However, I disagree strongly with Moubayed's characterization of Syria in particular and the Arab world in general as a society with no love, then compares it with a Western ideal of love, relationships and marriage. Such sweeping generalizations may lead one to argue that Sami has internalised the arguments of the neo-orientalist historians, ideologues and demagogues who pass off as experts on 'Arab culture' in Western establishments. Such a line of reasoning is, in my opinion, dangerous and incorrect for the reasons I describe below.

Moubayed refers to the 'grand commercial celebrations' which we regrettably have copied with "zero understanding" from the West. Presumably lovers in the West do have an understanding of this superficial and petty celebration though I have yet to meet any who do. In fact and if I remember correctly, Valentines day has it's roots in pagan Greco-Roman fertility cults and was later incorporated by a Church eager to make itself acceptable to the non-believing masses of Europe and the Middle East. Later on, European medieval notions of chivalry and romance helped transform the celebration into what we recognise today and it is now a day in which big business and the catering industry make a huge amount of profits. As such, the day is marketed heavily and effectively in the West to maximise the value from the consumer couples these companies seek to woo. Is this the understanding Syrian couples should have acquired perhaps? If the master copy is flawed, I fail to see how there is anything of use to be gleaned from this foreign (to the rest of the world) and artificial celebration.

I also fail to see the use of comparing love stories in Arab history and in Western history. Though Sami has managed to bring us stories of love and pining from both societies, he appears either unwilling or not very bothered to back up his claims that there are not many such stories in Arab history, whether far in the past or contemporary. I make no claims to expertise, but I find it hard to believe that there are no such stories in abundance. In addition, getting dragged into this creates an artificial and unnecessary debate. Are the Arabs not capable of love like the Western individual perhaps? Does love even exist in our societies? Whose standard and definition of love are we referring to, in fact, what is love and how should it be expressed? Far from drowning Sami's arguments in relativism, I just question his method. If Sami wished to attack the rigid and damaging traditonalism and superficiality afflicting Syrian and Arab society today, I feel he has chosen the wrong tools and has instead bludgeoned an innocent bystander with a club of cliche's, generalisation and exaggeration. To quote Tina Turner, "What's love got to do with it?" What indeed?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

On "Love"

"There are 12 marriages per 1,000 citizens in Damascus. That is what official statistics say, and yet there is also a staggering 40% divorce rate in the Syrian capital. Meaning, out of the 1,000 people who get married, 400 of them get divorced. The divorce rate is much lower in Latakia (9%), Aleppo (8%), Hama (7%) and Raqqa (3%). This shows that the Damascenes are the first ‘to fall in love’ and the first to get an early divorce… Damascus is a city that does not celebrate real love, or lovers, despite the grand commercial celebrations we have copied—with zero understanding—from the West on Valentine’s Day. It champions a variety of other ideals, like chivalry, nationalism, Arabism, and entrepreneurship—but not love."

I think he made an assumption that the reason for the increased rate of divorce cases has to do with "love" or "quality" of "love" in Damascus.

He believes that if Homsi people do not get divorce then the relationships are "intense" and "passionate" as opposed to "superficial" ones in Damascus.

I think the reason people, younger generation mostly, tend to divorce because they have less attachment to traditions and classic Syrian understanding to "marriage" itself. Not because they have wrong approaches to "love".

In fact, in Homs and Hama, people get married in most superficial way; a girl go to a wedding in order to "be sailed". The more she goes to weddings the more she guarantees a husband.

In Damascus, this exists of course, but there is a minority that does exist in other traditional Syrian cities like Homs and Hama. This minority does not seek to "maintain" superficial stability as other cities do, but rather they are honest with themselves and their relationships. If something doesn’t work then let's end it, they do not worry about a "scandal" as Homs and Hama people do.

He is saying that when there is no high divorce rate then everything is fine; in Suweida people still marry children; he is 28 and he still seeks 14 years old girl to marry. If they don't get divorce then things are fine? And when they do then "love is not celebrated"??

I think he is missing out the life if Damascus. He is an immigrant after all.
Great analysis as usual, Wassim.